If this painting isn’t iconic, the term should be banished from the vocabulary of art. Forget, for a moment, Mona Lisa’s smile and the Sistine Creator transmitting the spark of life to Adam. Set aside what was to come, including Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). They, obviously, have their claims.
Picture, instead, a painting of a darkish forest glade whose human figures look, at a glance, as if they might have been painted by a gifted eighth-grader with a precocious interest in female anatomy. A nude lady—if “lady” is the word—sits on the turf with her head turned, smiling pleasantly in the painter’s direction, hand on chin, as if to ask: “What about this?” Keeping her company are two fully dressed young men, one reclining and gesturing to the other, who seem to be having a conversation—though not about the unusual situation. Some distance behind them, another young woman, fully dressed, appears to be bathing.
What is odd—or was odd, when Édouard Manet exhibited this famous scene, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected) in Paris a century-and-a-half ago—is the air of nonchalance, as if there were nothing special about a nude maiden keeping company, in a wooded glen, with fully attired young men in the Paris of 1863. And maybe there wasn’t, though that was not the judgment of the art world of that age. Nudity itself could hardly have been the issue: The bare body had been a fixture of painting and sculpture since antiquity. Even Michelangelo’s heavenly hosts, for that matter, are mostly bare. But, as one historian remarked, Manet had transformed nudity into nakedness.
This picture—an image that would define modern painting for years to come—signaled the beginnings of a revolution in craft and taste whose sesquicentennial fell this past year. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe was not the first picture to flout academic convention or scandalize traditionalists. But nothing quite like it had been seen before, and hundreds of visitors to the Salon des Refusés, where it first came to public view, thought it must be some sort of joke. For one thing, the graduated shadings that defined the contours of human faces and limbs were missing; Manet’s style was, as one critic put it, “flat as a postcard.”
The unlikely impresario of the Salon des Refusés was the mischievous Emperor Napoleon III, who at that moment was intriguing to reestablish an imperial foothold in Mexico. Fearing that the judges who controlled the yearly Salon in Paris had excluded worthy works, he decreed the special exhibit known as the Salon des Refusés and offered experimentalists their viewing. But what was to follow?
One who followed, and had an emphatic say, was the young Émile Zola (1840-1902), journalist, story-teller, and pamphleteer, who was ultimately to become, after his model Balzac, the author of an encyclopedic cycle of novels and tales documenting French life in the latter half of the 19th century. The son of a Venetian-born civil engineer, he had imbibed the scientism of his time. He believed that “naturalism,” given its innings, would carry the day for the “new painting,” as he called it—and he viewed Manet as its prophet, though, to many eyes, Manet’s pictures looked anything but “natural.”
Zola’s heroic role in the Dreyfus case three decades later is well-known. What is less well-known is his role as a passionate exponent of the art exemplified by Manet and others whose names would soon be equally celebrated, including Degas and Cézanne. Their dissection of light would become the vital mark of Impressionism, a movement that was probably in the cards even if there had been no Zola to celebrate it. Technical developments, including tube paints and chemical pigments that permitted artists to emerge from dim indoor studios and paint in the open air, led to the new treatment of light. The new optics meant that landscape painting would never again be the same.
It was not written, however, that painters would depict their mistresses in that open air.